I don't know what I expected to see or feel but I was totally charmed by Japan. It is very modern and very rural. In many ways we have a lot to learn from the Japanese, like their high-speed trains, use of solar panels, and using land for farming and not grass.
We were in the south western half of the major island of Honshu known as the Kansai region. We chose to not go to Tokyo, (the south eastern side of Honshu, known as the Kanto region) which for us was good. Tokyo is the largest city in the world and is it's own prefecture of Tokyo. The population is around 37 million. The whole population of Canada is a little less than 37 million. Hard to wrap my mind around that one. So for us it would be too big and we had other places we wanted to spend more time in.
We are very lucky to have our very good friend, Hanit Livermore who lives in Japan, encourage us to visit. As a young adult she fell in love with the culture and over 22 years ago moved with her husband to Japan from Israel. All their children were born there. Her husband is as immersed in the culture as she is.
Hanit does tours of Japan mostly for Israelis but is open to everyone. Her tours of Japan are at https://shalom-japan.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a tour. The website is currently in Hebrew so email her for more information. Hanit is fluent in English, Hebrew and Japanese.
In August of 2019 Hanit was visiting in Canada so we were able to meet and get our questions answered, like food for gluten intolerant people, is JR rail pass good and how long to get the pass for. She gave us some invaluable ideas and we essentially did a tour of Japan as she suggested. We went to Okayama for three days including a day-trip to Naoshima Island, three days in Kyoto, a day and overnight in Kanazawa and another day in Kyoto. All travel was by bullet train and local transit.
We stayed with Hanit and her family in the town of Yaotsu, Gifu Prefecture (more about Yaotsu lower down page), an area of mountains and rivers, for five days at the beginning of our Japan time and for two days before going home. She graciously was our tour guide for the local area and we saw things we'd never have known were there. We did some day trips to some of the places where her tours go like the town of Gujo Hachiman and Inuyama Castle and town. Some were dictated by our personal interests-like a rice producer (which will be a separate story) or a hike to wonderful waterfall near her home. And because we are personal friends she introduced us to her Japanese friends. More about a lovely afternoon below under Yaotsu. Hats off to Hanit to a fabulous time!
How we got there
We live on the Northwest Coast of the USA. There are lots of flights to Japan from Vancouver, Canada and Seattle, San Francisco or LA, on many airlines. Most go to Tokyo. Direct flight length is around 10 hours. The cheapest flights often go to Korea first which, of course, makes it a very long day. When you arrive in Tokyo it is a train ride or another flight to get to another city .
I know Japanese love Hawaii so figured we could get to almost anywhere in Japan from Hawaii on a direct flight. So we decided to fly from Seattle to Honolulu, Hawaii and stayed there for a few days (who doesn't like a few days in Hawaii?) and then flew directly to Nagoya. We did the same on the way back. We flew Delta and the flight was about nine hours. We payed a little extra for the comfort seats which was good for us.
We chose to fly into Nagoya because it was closer to where Hanit lives. If we had gone to Tokyo we would have had to get another flight or the bullet train to Nagoya. As it was, Hanit was finishing a tour and met us in Nagoya. It was so great to see her happy face greeting us at Arrivals at the airport. She was invaluable getting us onto the correct local train, showing us how to pay, what to pay and how to read the schedule. The train from Nagoya was an hour and a half to get close to her home where a friend picked us up for the last half-hour journey.
Before you go
You can purchase your JR ticket (Japan Rail) on-line at the official website or there are many other sites to get them from, even Expedia. The official site will give you a lot information about the routes and trains. It is an amazing system but can be confusing. If you order the tickets before you leave they can be delivered to you at home. You can purchase them in Japan at a few places like airports and train stations but I think the hassle of trying to find the kiosk after a 10 or 14 hr flight dragging your suitcase with you is too much. Why worry about the hassle. Is it worth buying the pass? Yes, if you'll be travelling to other cities, unless you're renting a car. The price for a single round-trip ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto is about the same as a for a 7-day pass. We got a 14-day pass. We paid a little extra for the green car (reserved seats) because we wanted to be sure we'd have a seat. We were there in October and the dedicated Green cars were never full. Also, which we didn't know for about a week after we were travelling by train, is that your JR pass is good for blue buses in some of the cities. Not all cities had them, and they may not go as frequently to where you want to go, but it will save a couple of hundred yen here and there.
A few things to know
Learn a few words in Japanese (try the free app Duolingo or pay a bit for Rocket Languages). A few words to learn are hello, goodbye, yes, please, excuse me, delicious. People you meet will appreciate it. There are more and more people speaking English though. Look for people in their 30's or a little older. Many have very good English skills. Google translate works well also. We used it when we had an only Japanese speaking taxi driver to ask him to wait for us and we used it to read labels on packaged food.
At the train station in Kyoto there was a cab stand that said Tourist Taxi. The drivers were able to communicate with us. With other drivers, show them the phone number of the place you are going and they can call and get directions. Remember, if they don't speak English they cannot read your English directions, but can understand the numbers.
For a quick bite don't hesitate to eat at 7-Eleven, Lawson, or Family Mart. The food is pretty good and cheap in price. I got coffee there and tried a few different things and it was OK. Some even have warming cases for some of the food.
When paying for something, use the tray beside the cash register to put your money on. No handing it to the cashier.
No need to tip!
The Japanese can be very formal. If you speak Japanese or have tried learning you'll know that entering someone's house for the first time, or meeting someone for the first time is formalized-- there are specific words to say. Do your best. I couldn't get the words out and was, I hope, forgiven.
When you enter someone's home, or some traditional restaurants, it is required to take your shoes off. Set them with the toes of the shoes pointing to the outside. So, that is something to think of--take shoes that are easy to get on and off. Reconsider those fabulous high lace up boots, you might not want to be carrying them around as excess baggage.
There are smoking areas in airports and train stations. Kyoto train station had one outside that was small but well used. The only people I can remember seeing smoking on the street were three young white girls. Guess they didn't get the memo.
Also, I saw very few people eat or drink while walking. It is frowned upon. At open air markets with food stalls, some form of sitting arrangement was usually available to sit and eat your treat. Also, it was so crowded that walking with food would be a disaster.
If you rent a car remember they drive on the left-hand side of the road. Also, there is NO drinking alcohol and driving. The limit is not 0.08 or 0.05. It is 0.00. Bus drivers take a breathalyzer before driving everyday! If you are going to a bar, at some bars, you can arrange for the bar to pick you up and drive you home. The bars are cautious because they can also be charged if you get into an accident.
I had just got my tattoo and then read an article about Japan that said you could not go into a public bath if you had a tattoo. Oh no! A little research showed that often places will have bandages for you to cover your tat. I showed my tattoo at the hotel and the concierge opened a drawer and pulled out an appropriate sized bandage. As it turned out we were the only ones in the public bath.
You can drink the tap water. It's very good. So bring your water bottle and fill it. Say goodbye to buying water.
I loved the warm toilet seats
I want one at home on cold winter mornings. The whole toilet arrangement is great. Press a switch and it's a bidet, has music, and automatic cleaning. Of course, there are squat toilets for those who are used to them. Can't read the instructions? Use Google translate.
If, while travelling on public transit you forget your coat or another article, you can call the local transit company and they will deliver it to you.
Garbage receptacles are hard to find so just carry it with you until you find one. There is very little garbage in the streets, so that must be what the Japanese do. Then again they do not walk and eat and drink so that would cut down on the street garbage. Look for the drink vending machines and you'll usually find a garbage container close.
You can get a sim card for your cell phone or purchase or rent a portable WiFi unit. It's very competitive so check out different sites. You can order one to be picked up at the airport or railway station. We stayed in one place that had the portable unit for our use. We didn't use it though, because our USA service provider (T-Mobile) gives us unlimited data, more or less worldwide, so we just used that. Mostly we used Google translate and we used Google maps for helping us not get lost and to find bus and train stops.
One app to get is Japan Travel
Available on Google Play and Apple App Store, Japan Travel app supports international tourist traveling to Japan with the most efficient navigation (so says the website). You can find destinations to visit, plan itineraries, make reservations, and search routes while actually traveling. Content is available in 13 languages.
Here's an article I wrote for Rovology.com on tips before you go to Japan. It will take you directly to their page. But come back to my website for more about our travels.
Yaotsu, Gifu Prefecture
We stayed with Hanit and her family in the town of Yaotsu, Gifu Prefecture, an area of mountains and rivers, for five days at the beginning of our Japan time and for two days before going home. She graciously was our tour guide for the local area and we saw things we'd never have known were there. We did some day trips to some of the places where her tours go like the town of Gujo Hachiman and Inuyama Castle and town. Some were dictated by our personal interests-like a rice producer. Gujo Hachiman, Inuyama Castle and the Rice producer will be separate stories. We did a hike to a wonderful waterfall near her home.
The town of Yaotsu, where my friend and her family live, is nestled in the mountains of south-central Gifu Prefecture, with two rivers running by and forests surrounding it. The population is around 11,000 people.
Staying there was a good slide into the-life-of-Japan for us. We got to be in a small town where we could wander around and not get lost and yet see the old and the new. I don't know if it is a typical town but I found it interesting. We went into the local grocery store for sushi and wine. Good selection of wine and alcohol, almost the same price as the US. I was amused to see the blue aprons with Walmart written on them.
Some of the streets are narrow with only a strip of pavement butting against the buildings. We continually had to remind ourselves to walk on the right hand side of the street to be facing the traffic. Often we walked on what looked like square paving stones that seemed to cover a shallow trench that is maybe channels for heavy rainfall. There are new modern buildings and old, old buildings and traditional and 'western' style buildings. In a cutout of a wall is a small shrine. Turn a corner and there's another shrine. The lion dog (komainu) background of this page is from a shrine in Yaotsu. Near a bridge I looked down into a valley with a stream, and saw torii gates (gates leading to shrines) and the small shrine behind them. As I walked I saw a man up on a ladder trimming an artful tree with a pair of scissors (we would see this attention to detail at every garden we went to.) In the cracks at the side of road flowers were growing. I found an abandoned building with no front wall and the roof half off. I went in and found the machines with spindles and bobbins of a cloth manufacturer. Weeds and grass was growing in between the parts of the machinery. And as I walked looking down alleyways and across parking lots the bright orange of the ripening persimmons was welcome on the grey autumn days.
We had an example of the wonderful hospitality of Japan when Hanit took us to visit her friends who live on the side of a mountain a little outside of Yaotsu. Sayo and Kunihiko showed us how to cook the dish Oyako Don (oya is the parent chicken and ko is the kid egg) We had that and the tofu you'll see in the pictures (at bottom of page) that was cooked over open coals in their dining room. Sayo taught us calligraphy, and then she played a siamisen (a stringed instrument) and she and her husband sang us a traditional song about fisherman. We departed with a gift of a three-cornered basket that Sayo had weaved herself. It was a lovely day.
The Fisherman Song
The two panels on the table is our attempts with calligraphy.
So make note: Japanese are thoughtful and love to give gifts, not only of their time but of reminders of Japan. We received a few gifts and unfortunately had little to reciprocate with. If you want to take some gifts home for your friends try the 100 yen stores, similar to our Dollar store.
The Righteous Among Nations
There are some sake manufacturers in Yaotsu but now it's largest tourist destination is the museum at the top of the Hill of Humanity Park--Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall. It is said that Sugihara was born in Yaotsu though it may be that he was born only close to the town. A number of controversies surround some of the presentations and claims at the museum but in the end does it really matter to those who are recipients of his thoughtfulness, and care for humanity? Here's a very short version of his story.
Chiune Sugihara (1900-1986) was a Japanese diplomat during WWII, sent to Kaunas, Lithuania as vice-consul for the Japanese Empire. He understood what was happening to the Jews of Europe and in Lithuania. He requested permission from his superiors to offer visas to the Jewish community. He was denied each time. Even knowing his family may suffer from his decision, he and his wife, Yukiko, spent days writing out visas to Japan. It is thought he saved 10,000 people from the Holocaust. (Extrapolate how many people that would be now if all they had children.) He and the Dutch Consul, Jan Zwarendijk, worked to make the visas so Jews could pass through Russia, under the protection of Japan and theoretically go to the Dutch West Indies in the Caribbean. Many settled elsewhere.
Chiune Sugihara, in 1984, was granted the Honor of Righteous Among the Nations by the Jewish community. For more information go to this website:
In 2020, Kaunas, Lithuania will celebrate Chiune Sugihara Week from October 12 - 18th. Still revered there.
Yaotsu's museum to Sugihara is quite extensive with movies and pictures. We did go to it but I couldn't stay long. To me it is a very emotional place. I know about the Holocaust, I've seen so many pictures and I knew the story of Sugihara. I had to leave because I no longer need to see man's inhumanity to 'others'. After that I couldn't face going to Hiroshima, to see that memorial. I've heard it is well done. My heart hurts for all those who have been and for those who still are mistreated and murdered and suffer.